Hearings at the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme will end this week, and its report is due at the end of June.
Judging from her reaction to the testimony of some of the witnesses, there is little doubt that Commissioner Catherine Holmes will find much about the scheme and its authors to criticise.
However, the end of June is some time away, and there’s no reason not to make some immediate unofficial findings.
For example, there has been an epidemic of forgetfulness among many of the senior public servants questioned by the Commission. This is the Alan Bond Defence, made famous by that corporate criminal when brought to book: ‘I can’t recall’.
People who are paid salaries of a quarter of a million dollars or more for their organisational abilities find they cannot remember crucial dates and meetings. Moreover, they suffer from selective blindness as well: ‘I didn’t see that email’.
Another common response to the Commission has been the Nuremberg Defence, first employed by Nazi war criminals: ‘I was just following orders.’ Public servants using this dodgy defence could at least argue that those among them who did question Robodebt were swiftly sidelined or sacked.
Amazingly, a resort to the Nuremberg Defence was made by the minister in charge of the scheme, Stuart Robert himself, who, in a sane universe rather than the pitiless inferno created by the Coalition, would have been the one giving the orders. Instead, he claimed that he was the victim of cabinet rules, which forced him to tell lies about Robodebt against his better judgment.
Indeed, Robert was the star turn of the hearings, and an example of the Peter Principle in action: ambitious people will rise until their incompetence is no longer in doubt.
A prolific, lying, grub
This close friend of Scott Morrison (‘Brother Stuwie’ in their cultish terminology) is more than just incompetent, he is what old-school journos call a ‘grub’, that is, a politician who uses his position to enrich himself.
From his first conflict of interest over an unofficial trip to China that saw him sacked from Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet, to one of his own companies receiving millions of dollars in government contracts (his father unknowingly listed as a director), to his charging taxpayers $2,000 a month for home internet, Robert has debauched every parliamentary standard.
He is also a prolific liar, if not quite in the Morrison league. He lied about slush funding local government candidates in Queensland, he lied off the top of his head and invented a cyber attack when the MyGov website went down after thousands of people tried to log on during the covid epidemic, he has dodged and weaved around his blind trust and his links with strange business partners, including a money launderer, a convicted rapist and a lobbyist, to rank them in ascending order of turpitude.
Commissioner Holmes caught Robert’s lie about ministerial responsibility. His duty to cabinet, he insisted, meant he had to defend things he might not agree with. But he knew Robodebt was illegal when he enthusiastically boosted it to the media and invented spurious statistics to justify the scheme. This is not holding an opinion that differed from his colleagues and keeping quiet about it, this is lying about a factual matter.
Commissioner Holmes will also have to make a judgment of truthfulness between Robert and Renee Leon, a former human services secretary.
When Robodebt was discovered to be unlawful, Ms Leon advised the minister that the department should apologise to customers, admit the error and inform the public of steps to correct it. She said that Robert replied, ‘We absolutely will not be doing that. We will double down.’ Robert denies this and asserts he made strenuous efforts to clarify the legal issue.
Stuart Robert was one of the last ministers to appear at the hearings, and arguably the one who made the worst job of defending the indefensible. But the others warrant similar revulsion: Morrison himself, Malcolm Turnbull, Christian Porter and Alan Tudge – particularly Tudge, whose office appears to have been behind the leak of the personal files of Robodebt victims to the Murdoch hyenas.
It was all about saving the government money, with the bonus of punishing the poor and unemployed, who the Coalition believes could be rich and working if they so chose.
As to whether any lessons have been learned from this appalling episode: well, last week Peter Dutton swore that in office he would repeal Labor’s legislation reducing the tax breaks for people who hold superannuation funds in excess of three million dollars. No Robodebt severity for them.
Whatever the findings of the June report may be, owing to a lack of applicable law they are unlikely to include any actual sanctions of the perpetrators of this vicious scheme, which forced numerous vulnerable people to suffer a terrible wrong, and which cost some of them their very lives.